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Lawmakers Funnel $100 Million To Florida Forever

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Florida Department of Environmental Protection
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Neglected for nearly a decade, the Florida Forever conservation program would get $100.8 million in a proposed $88.7 billion budget that lawmakers are expected to approve Sunday.

Rep. Ben Albritton, a Wauchula Republican who chairs the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee, said most of the money would go for land preservation.

“We started at a much lower number for Florida Forever here in the House,” Albritton said. “Thank goodness, in conference (negotiations), we raised that number significantly.”

The funding amount would double a proposal by Gov. Rick Scott.

The Florida Forever program, which in the past received as much as $300 million a year, has for nearly a decade --- initially in reaction to the recession --- fallen out of favor among lawmakers.

The $100.8 million would be provided to Florida Forever during the 2018-2019 fiscal year, which starts July 1.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, proposed a bill (SB 370) that would provide $100 million each year to the program, but his proposal has stalled in the House.

Meanwhile, the House has had a competing bill (HB 7063) that would set aside $200 million a year for Florida Forever. Under that proposal, land-acquisition funding would initially be limited to $57 million a year, with other money going to reducing existing debt.

Lawmakers were expected to end the annual legislative session Friday, but budget negotiators failed to meet a deadline. As a result, lawmakers are expected to meet Sunday to approve the spending plan. The House and Senate began discussing the budget during floor sessions Friday.

Albritton said the Florida Forever money in the proposed budget (HB 5001) includes $5.8 million for the Rural and Family Lands Protection program, $6 million for recreational park development, $77 million for acquisition of unique lands, and $10 for the Florida Communities Trust program, which also includes land buying.

The Rural and Family Lands program is used for conservation easements, which keep land from being developed while allowing ranchers and farmers to continue operating on the land.

A favorite of Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, the program has been used 41 times to secure 42,276 acres across the state. The most-recent deal was approved Wednesday, with the state agreeing to spend $660,060 to conserve 772 acres of ranchland in Madison County. That site sits between two Florida Forever projects --- Hixtown Swamp and San Pedro Bay --- and includes Sampala Lake, a 115-acre spring fed lake.

The proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 also includes $248.1 million for Everglades restoration; $61.2 million for beach restoration; $52.1 million for citrus canker claims payments in Palm Beach and Broward counties; $46.1 million for state park repairs; $50 million for a federal project to restore the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee; $50 for restoration of the state’s natural springs; and $18.3 million for citrus-greening research.  

Albritton noted that the beach money includes $11.2 million for repairs needed due to Hurricane Irma

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Jim Turner of the News Service of Florida